Lost Horizon

The horizon is the sum of all vanishing points, at least all those within the span or range of any fixed perspective onto the world. That sum is a monument of infinite scale, no matter how narrow the viewpoint, how partial or limited its focus is. Any small segment of the horizon line will contain an infinitude of vanishing points equal to the infinitude of points in the entire 360 degree sweep of the world’s circumference. The horizon says: that difference doesn’t matter. From this angle, the horizon is an arc of values that could be written in a trivial—because it is ultimately meaningless or of little value—sigma notation: the sum of all points on or any segment of the horizon, 1 to n, will be equal to the sum 1 to n±1. (Infinity plus or minus 1 still equals infinity.) Less trivially, because the horizon is also the border, orbit or compass of a viewpoint, it’s also the last appearance of the world before it drops out of view. The last appearance of something, whether at the scale of the world or of a vista onto it, indexes its disappearance. But because, in this perspectival topography, the horizon itself never disappears no matter how far and fast you move toward or away from it, this horizon could also be written in calculus as the function of a limit condition. An exponentiation rather than a sum. Either way you look at it, the horizon—crucial to any perspectival rendering and thus to any sense of proportion and ratio or linearity or law to the world, and crucial to any outlook, community, dynasty, enclosure, haven or empire—cannot be observed as an image but only as a diagram of something otherwise imperceptible and inaccessible.

The horizon is the exploit of a fatal secret: it is a hallucination necessary to conserve a disillusioned, cartographic and parochial territoriality of the world. That exploit is a dirty secret that lies coiled within the world’s genesis, the worm in the bud: the secret, locked away, like Dorian Gray’s diabolical portrait as a charm to sustain a spectacular and stridently scenic world-picture. And like all secrets, the dark secret of the horizon invokes a fatal strategy: the horizon indulges but also wrecks the prospects of navigation across the world circumscribed by its patronising monumentality. As much as it radiates a spellbinding promise of liberation or of command, the lure of the horizon conceals an intensive catastrophe, a lost dimension only envisioned at the cusp of annihilating collapse. In that moment, the horizon line is seen as the crest of an approaching planetary tsunami, from which there is no escape. Darkness becoming visible. ‘Now little ship, look out!’, warns Nietzsche’s aphorism 124 (In the Horizon of the Infinite) of his Gay Science,

Beside you is the ocean: to be sure, it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that had felt free and now strikes the walls of this cage! Woe, when you feel homesick for the land as if it had offered more freedom—and there is no longer any ‘land’. [1]

The Biblical Genesis, in the stately verse of its 6th century BCE priestly authorship, tells the story of creation as a series of measured pronouncements by its serenely imperial God composing an elemental table of contents and ritual schedule for their appearance. [2] Sea that is divided from land is the corollary of a division of day from night and heaven from earth: the horizon comes into view with the taxonomic decorum and eventuality of divine fabrication. Both scission and suture, the dividing line of the horizon is the seam between complementary scenes and consequential acts that seal providential boundaries to the categories of creation, and that compose the measure of history as the liability of human finitude. The horizon commands veneration as an abstraction of the divine index against which all things created will be measured in their place and scale, and to which all creaturely aspiration or inspiration will defer, genuflect and face up to as the gauge for its own limit. The divine benevolence of creation is inscribed in that contractual signature of the horizon, and the world is staged in compliance with that horizon’s binding propriety.

But the glory contractually forged in the world’s horizon obscures the black secret of what the covenant of genesis leaves behind: the uncreated as omission, after-birth, error, oblivion—and when there is no longer any land, no mountain peak for the ark to come eventually ashore upon, no homeland or anchorage. Genesis secretes a pathogenesis, with the pathogen a glitch encrypted in the divine source code. When the world-picture contracts this pathogen as an error of creation, the horizon is eclipsed by a miscreant universe. In Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘A Descent into the Maelström’, a fisherman narrates with dark terror his experience of violent entrapment within the vast and storm-lashed torsion of the Lofoten whirlpool. When he exclaims that the ocean around the boat rose precipitously and ‘stood like a huge writhing wall between us and the horizon’ he pictures a visionary inundation that usurps the juridical rectification of any divinely archetypal Flood or Plague. [3] This upheaval of the maelstrom is not the corrective edict or wrathful retribution from an angered or even petulant God (Elohim, Yahweh or Poseidon). It comes without prospect of mitigation, redemption or salvation, only purposeless annihilation and extinction.

Poe’s gargantuan, abyssal oceanic vortex not only sucks its victims downward in an awful consuming gyration. ‘Looking about me on the wide waste of liquid ebony upon which we were thus borne,’ recounts the fisherman, as the boat to which he and his two brothers are desperately clinging spirals into the black gulf, ‘I perceived that [ours] was not the only object in the embrace of the whirl.’ [4] As it widens with Miltonic gloom its threatening funnel-shaped gullet, it also vomits up a bizarre flotsam—an obscene inventory of the ocean’s voracious appetite, like the sundry debris that spills from a dissected shark’s gut. As well as observing the ghastly wreckage of ships and tantalising scraps of cargo, the imperiled sailor also glimpses with morbid curiosity items of household furniture, building timber, and even fir trees surfacing and plunging through the surging torrent as if they were flecks of undigested prey being licked about the rictus of this monstrous entity. This regurgitation of sunken—anachronic, delocated and morbid—assets of sea trade derisively mocks the prospect of the hospitably fertile fishing grounds the sailors would have reached had they been able to hold, like the ship of state, a steady and timely course.

Poe’s vortex eclipses the horizon with accelerating, plasma-like convulsions upend space and warp time. Picture this darkening ecliptic in comparison with the unloosening effect of the twister that arrives out of thin air to lift Dorothy’s farmhouse intact from the monochrome Kansas dustbowl up over the rainbow into the pastoral dreamland and counter-earth of Oz. This tempest executing Dorothy’s ascension shows off its epiphanic Biblical pedigree with the whirl that flashes the red shoes on a dancer’s feet under a lifting skirt. A widening gyre extricates Dorothy from a depressive monotony of her mundane domesticity to take her heavenward. Like the rainbow it surpasses, it is a storm radiant with spectral providence—and also with a measure of pubescent eroticism, not too far removed from the ecstatic uplift of Bernini’s marble cloud that miraculously levitates the liquefying St Teresa. Surely, we would rightly anticipate, a revelation is at hand. Or an angel with Cupid’s arrow. Or at least a memorable and lucid homily, one on the restoration of property rights, the rectification of mistaken identity and the salvation of the wretched. In Dorothy’s conservationist and conservative sentimental idiom, unveiling the wizardry of Oz is neither an apocalypse nor a disenchantment but an allegory of faith in a proverbial enlightenment.

Of course, the distinction between Oz’s twister and Poe’s maelström is not just the political polarity of their direction. While the whirlwind’s atmosphere is as fluid as the whirlpool’s, the wind’s embrace is purposeful, decisive and transparent. Even in its vertiginous scaling, the wind blowing toward Oz never loses sight of the rainbow covenant. For all its marvelous metamorphic terrain Oz is a good-humoured masquerade; and for all its witchcraft it is a convivially divine place, the celestial mirror of earth. Oz proves there to be no place like home, in the words of Dorothy’s celebrated ultimate reconciliation with the Real. That terrified sailor, on the other hand, who witnesses his own insignificant fall toward an event horizon is shrouded in a voluptuous tenebrism. This is the sort of caustic, relentless black wind of unsatisfied lust that also tosses entwined, illicit lovers in their eternal storm of guilty passion around the circumference of Dante’s hadean second circle of Inferno. From Dante’s moral viewpoint, but using the words of another of Poe’s narrative personae (witnessing the denouement of the Mesmeric zombie Monsieur Valdemar), we could imagine this inescapable, indecent jetstream collapsing into ‘a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity.’ [5] Those tremors and spasms pitching Poe’s sailor onto the cusp of ecstatic death are archaic and unaccountable, unintelligible, and psychic as much as tidal phenomena: tumescent rigidifications and blind colossal dissipative fluctuations. As its substance and form sublimate into an obscure cosmic enigma, holding its passenger in rapt curiosity as much as delirium and fear, the maelström becomes as alien and unfathomable as another great visionary loss of the consoling divine horizon: the hideously titanic, sinewy, fibrous vortices and catastrophic currents within the oceanic planet of Stanislav Lem’s science fiction novel Solaris.

The febrile plasmatic architecture of Solaris’s ocean also grasps its doomed witnesses in rapt curiosity with hallucinatory horror, and compels them to a kind of prophetic narration that Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh might call a ‘halluci-phatic state of explicit, graphic descriptions of properties [of a deity] that are … previously indescribable.’ [6] Lem’s narrator conducts an official enquiry into the depositions of scientists who preceded him, filling the novel (like the notorious excursuses on whaling and maritime lore in Melville’s Moby Dick) with oceanographic, meteorological, biological and aesthetic observations along with ontological conjectures on the substance and activity of the planet’s waves. But defying the tone of research reports, these speculations are furnished as esoteric visionary and even apotropaic fragments (comparable to the vestiges of H.P. Lovecraft’s inexistent grimoire, the Necronomicon), which the narrator retrieves, archived in a library in the orbiting space station housing the research facilities.

This volatile thing that streams, surges, ebbs, disintegrates, heaves and subsides across its planet’s tellurian crust is so abundantly metamorphic that its astronaut observers see it fluctuating between four instable states: an ocean (a fluid with troughs and convection currents and with foam and fog licking its rhythmic wave fronts); an organism (gelatinous, syrupy, chaotic or slimy protoplasm, yet growing like a cancer cell); bioplasma (an organized metabolic system, but also capable of the oncological mutation as a plasma stream within cells); and most disconcertingly, a brain (an electro-chemical system, generating an incomprehensibly encrypted monologue). Solaristics is the seemingly limitless yet pointless annunciation of these fractal insurgences within the taxonomic and isotopic generalities and concordances of the scientific and aesthetic imagery of Solaris. Due to the irreducibility and also incommensurability of its lexicon, the discipline of Solaristics collapses into an escalating whorl of cartographical fantasia, geographical gabble and aesthetic horror captivated and captured within the inspirational depths of an unknowable, immeasurable, shoreless monster.

The brink of such a lost cause—a lost cause of life and its world-picture—is the point of no return. Of life and its world-picture. The vanishing point.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Walter Kauffman (trans.), Vintage, New York, 1974, pp 180-181.

[2] Linguistic, paleographic and archaeological/folkoric studies currently indicate that Genesis is a 5th century BCE edited amalgamation of at least three textual traditions: the Elohist or E source (dating from the 8th century BCE); the authorship known as J (for Jahwist), arguably 10th century or 6th century BCE; and the text dubbed P for Priestly work, characterised by the metrical verse formats of the first chapters of Genesis.

[3] Edgar Allan Poe, “A Descent into the Maelstrom,’ The Portable Poe, Philip Van Doren Stern (ed.), Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1977, p. 146.

[4] Poe, p. 150.

[5] Poe, p. 280.

[6] Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh, Night: a philosophy of the after-dark, Zero Books, Winchester UK and Washington USA, 2019, p. 49. The neologism is not a awkwardly arbitrary as it might sound: Mohaghegh distinguishes ‘halluci-phatic prophecy’ from apophatic mysticism and cataphatic theology.


Title Image:

Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration. Image courtesy of the EHT Collaboration.

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Edward Colless is a Senior Lecturer of Critical and Theoretical Studies at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Aside from education, he has in the past also worked in theatre, film, broadcasting and architecture, been a curator, occasionally worked as a travel writer, and dabbled in fiction—but mainly he writes art criticism. In this field he has been an arts reviewer for The Age and The Australian, and associate editor and features writer for Art Collector. He is currently editor of the journal Art+Australia, with its associated publishing program. He also shamelessly uses any opportunity to write on arcane topics, the more obscure the better: heretical theology, art historical marginalia, crypto-zoology, dark tourism…